Serving Christians Seeking to Live a Holy Life

Dealing with Death

Leon L. Combs, Ph.D.

A Prologue

We were born. We will die. We do not have the option of avoiding either. Dealing with death should be accomplished before we have to face it, either by the death of a loved one or when we hear "you have about six months left to live". When we actually face death should be a time of application of our philosophy of dealing with death, not the beginning of its development. Of course the application of any philosophy facilitates the maturation of the philosophy, but it is a poor choice to wait until a major life event occurs before we begin dealing with it. There are many people who avoid dealing with death, but they have also made at least a preliminary philosophical statement -- they are living for the moment. It seems to me that with an issue which affects everyone, it is foolish not to directly face the issue and develop a response. With most people, death is a subject with which they will have to deal many times during their lifetime.

I have had to deal with death many times already in my life. My grandfather died when I was 15 years old. He was very special to me for my mother and I had lived with my grandfather and grandmother most of my life. My dad was overseas during WWII from when I was four until I was seven and when dad came back he was sick with malaria and other postwar effects for awhile and then he had to catch up on his interrupted career as a civil engineer with a state highway department. My grandfather spent a lot of time with me and taught me many things such as how to whittle -- important things in life. His death was a big blow to a developing teenager with many problems which most teenagers face. My grandmother died about eleven years later and her death was hard also for she had been such a strength factor and a loving factor in my life. Then one of my grandchildren, Michael, died at 5 days old. Going to his funeral and dealing with his death was very difficult. A little later my mother's brother died. Then just a few months later my mother died. Two years later (1987), my dad died. The high probability that my mom and dad would have lived years longer if they had obtained proper medical help made dealing with their deaths even more difficult. Some time later my mother's sister died. I have also had to deal with the death of friends -- one of whom was an extremely important mentor to me in my Christian walk. All of these people were very important in my life and I had to deal with their deaths. I have also experienced some "near deaths". My wife has been seriously ill a couple of times, and I had to deal with the possibility of her death at those times. I was put in the death ward of a hospital in 1966 and had to deal with the possibility of my death.

Dealing with death is not one of the easiest tasks of life, but we must all do it and do it very honestly. I have often heard people say, in response to a discussion about aging or dealing with sickness, "It beats the alternative". It seems to me that the people who say this phrase fit into two categories: those who are refusing to face the issue of death and have developed this "clown reaction" (a false front, the painted happy face on a face which is actually in a quandary about the concept of death); and those who have developed the philosophy that this life is all there is, and to them the alternative -- death -- is the ultimate loss and hence to them almost anything does "beat the alternative". To both categories of people I offer the fact that there is life after death. To people like me who know that their death will liberate them to be with Christ forever, "the alternative" is glorious. I look forward with great anticipation to "the alternative". To people who will face eternity without Christ the alternative is horrible, and perhaps they will continue in the philosophy of "It beats the alternative" rather than accepting a life with Christ which begins now and continues forever.

The following treatise is directed to everyone. My purpose is to offer consolation, and to contribute to the peace of the person who is a Christian. To the non-Christian my purpose is to offer hope to them, that they also can know with certainty that death is the glorious alternative.

Dealing With Death
January 25, 1998
Leon L. Combs, Ph.D.

Introductory Scene

I am in the snack room having a needed cup of coffee when a young man walks over to where I am sitting and asks "Professor, what is the meaning of life?" Attempting to look sophisticated and nonchalant about this impromptu philosophy class, I reply "Perhaps you had better sit down." He sits and then I ask him a question "How long has your body been living?" He replies "A little over 20 years." I then ask him "How much longer do you think that your body will continue to live?" He pauses a moment and then replies "I don't really know, of course, but statistically it should continue to function for about 58 more years." I smile at that response for it is an answer which indicates that he is really listening to me -- not to imply that this is an unusual event! Now I begin to accelerate the discussion and reach for a napkin to make a drawing. "OK, your body has been living for about 20 years and it will continue to live for somewhere between one second and 60 years more --perhaps even 70 more years. Then your body will have lived for about 80-90 years and on the time line of forever, we can see that the time of our existence would look like a speck of sand on the line from here to the end of the universe.

If T is the time your body is alive and t is all of time, what is the ratio of T/t?" Now the young man says "Well, the ratio is essentially zero." Now I am ready to answer his original question: "Good. So since the time that your body is alive is negligible compared to the time it is not alive, the first place to look to answer your original question about the meaning of life is to look at death -- to determine if you continue to live after death.." He then says "What?"

I then say "If you knew now that you were going to spend the rest of your life in Germany, what would be some of the things that you would do?"

He says "I would learn the German language, history, geography, job market, politics, etc." Then I say "OK, so you would be preparing for the rest of your life to be spent in Germany. Is that correct?" He looks as if some insight is creeping into his mind and replies "Yes, that is correct." I then look in his eyes as insightfully as I can and say "OK, so since your body will spend most of its time not alive, isn't it reasonable to see if there is any continuation of life after death?" He looks back in an intense manner and asks "You mean to see if there is a continuation of Me after my body dies?" I nod enthusiastically and just say "Yes." He then looks very contemplatively and says "Well, that seems to make sense. If I find that there is a continuation of my life after my body dies, then the meaning of life is to prepare for that life after death." "YES", I say as I use my whole body to agree with his conclusion. (Envision a typical fan reacting to the scoring of the winning points in the last second of the game to envision my visible reaction.)

I now say to him, "Rather than waste any of the precious little time that you have in your present body, you should start your search by studying what the only religious leader who was physically raised from the dead had to say about death and the life after death. This leader did not have a near death experience. He had a death experience and returned. His name is Jesus. So what did He have to say about death?"

The above is a fictional account although I have had many such conversations with young people over the years. The purpose of the above is to emphasize the importance of having a proper understanding of life after death. We will now look into dealing with death in a similar manner as someone should coming from the above background. We will first look at death from the perspective of the person who will die. The second perspective will be that of the relatives and friends of those who die.

I. The Person Facing Death (All of Us)

As we said above, Jesus experienced death, not near death. He was beaten horribly and crucified. He died on the cross and was buried in a tomb. But he arose from the dead on the third day after he died. He appeared to many people and gave the disciples their charge. All of this can be read in the 27th and 28th chapters of the book of Matthew. Christianity involves a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus is our Lord and only from Him (all Scripture is from God) do we learn the truth. So let us look at what God says to us about death.

We need to first know that there is no second chance at this worldly life. Reincarnation is not reality for we read in Heb 9:27 "man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment". The Bible thus eliminates the rather humanly-attractive philosophy of getting to try again.

Concerning death, we hear from John 5:24 that Jesus says "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life." We also read in John 8:51 "Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death."

If you read those verses carefully, you see things got complicated quickly. John 5:24 talks of people who have passed out of death and John 8:51 talks of people who will never see death. The two verses seem contradictory unless we know that in the Bible death can have two different meanings. I get excited when I read something in the Bible that seems contradictory, for I know that there are no contradictions which means that here is an opportunity to learn more about God. Death as used in the Bible can mean biological death or it can refer to people who are separated from God due to their spiritual state. Adam and Eve originally lived in a state of communion with God. However they sinned and then they were immediately separated spiritually from God . After their sin, we read in Gen 3:9 that God asked "where are you?" God did not lose them! The question is for the sake of Adam and Eve. It let them know that there was now such a separation between them and God that He could no longer commune with them. So Adam and Eve died spiritually immediately and then they were physically separated from the Garden. Also they began to die physically and many years later they did suffer biological death. This biological and spiritual death was then passed to all men (Rom 5:12) even until now. Now we are ready to interpret the above Scriptures knowing that two different kinds of death can be meant.

With the above background we can now understand that in John 5:24 Jesus is saying that those who hear the words of Jesus and believe the Father who sent Jesus have passed out of separation from God and are now in a state of communion with God. Therefore we have passed out of the judgment of God and have eternal life (we will not be judged on our works as to our having eternal life with God). So here Jesus says that people can have eternal life with God. We also read in Rev 21:8 that the unbelievers will not just cease to be, but they will spend eternity out of communion with God and in the lake of fire. Thus there is life for everyone after the body ceases to function. For some the eternal life will be wonderful, but for others it will be horrible beyond imagination. The choice should be easy. We can have eternal communion with God beginning here while our bodies live and the communion lasts forever. Or we can choose to stay forever in a state of separation from God. See Luke 16:19-31 for a comparison of two people's final states.

We also understand now what Jesus means in John 8:51. He is not saying that we who believe in Jesus will never cease to biologically function. He means that we will never again have a separation from God. John 3:16 also gives believers the promise of eternal life (here meaning the opposite of spiritual death -- an eternal communion with God). But those who do not believe will perish (suffer the total separation from God forever -- also called the second death in Rev 21:8). John 11:25 is also relevant to this discussion. There Jesus says "he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies". The word "dies" here means biological death, so we have a promise from Jesus here that even though we cease to function biologically we will continue to live. Here we must also understand that there are two Biblical meanings to the word "live". We have a continuity of existence spiritually (Phil 1:23), and one day we will receive a new biologically functioning body (2Cor 5:1-4). In 1John 3:2 we read that one day we will be like Jesus is, and we read in the Gospels about Jesus' resurrected body. His body is able to eat, people can touch Him, He looks like a person but somehow different, and yet He is not limited by walls and space. So when our body ceases to function, we will immediately be with the Lord spiritually, and then one day we will receive our resurrection body which will be like His.

So Jesus definitely teaches us about life after death, but the resulting life can be very different depending upon what we do here. We need to start preparing here for the life eternal. (Remember the analogy with going to live in Germany?). How do we begin to prepare? Eph 2:1 says that "you were dead in your trespasses and sin." And Eph 2:5 says that "even when we were dead in our transgressions, (God) made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)". Eph 2:8 reads "For by grace you have been saved. through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God". These scriptures make it very clear that there is nothing that we can do to bridge the gap between us and God -- a dead man can do nothing. We cannot work our way out of separation from God. God, by grace alone, gives us faith so that we can believe and He by his mercy gives us eternal communion with Himself so that we can worship Him forever. But this does not say that everyone is saved (universalism), for remember the well-known John 3:16 verse which says "he who believes". So only to believers does God give the transformation from separation to communion.

So, in analogy to preparing to live in Germany, is there anything for us to do to prepare to live with God after our biological death? Yes, but remember that our communion with God -- passage from separation from God -- begins the moment we accept His grace, and it continues forever. Eph 2:6 says that we are seated with Him in the heavenly places so that spiritually we are already there. However Jesus said (Matt 6:20): "But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal". So after God gives us the gift of eternity with Him, we can begin to prepare for it. We will be judged for our works here and some works will be of no value for eternity and some will be of eternal value ( 1Cor 3:11-15). So as we prepare for eternity let us all walk every step in His steps (1Peter 2:21 "For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps"). Our certain hope is in Him who conquered death and raised us from spiritual death to walk forever with Him. We long to hear our Lord say as in Matt 25:21 "His master said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful slave; you were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things, enter into the joy of your master.'"

So to the dying individual, physical death is the goal of life. It may sound strange to call death a goal, but it is in that death is our final act in this body. It is not failure, but victory. The fear of death makes people subject to slavery all their lives (Heb 2:15). I don't look forward to the process of dying, but I have no fear of death. Death brings us to Jesus in all His Glory as we enter a new relationship with God which surpasses all understanding. We want to approach that goal prepared. We don't want to hasten death (see my treatise on suicide), but from Phil 1:21 we read "For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain." In 1Cor 15:45 we read "But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory'". Our victory in Jesus. The glorious alternative!

II. The Person Temporarily Left Behind (Most of Us Experience Such)

Now let's shift gears and think about being left here after a loved one dies. Changing perspective leads into a different attitude, although all of the above is very useful in understanding the death of a loved one. Most of us will experience the pain of having a relative or friend physically die. I have experienced it quite a few times already, and more will certainly come to me for everyone has a limit to the number of years on earth. Nobody knows the number of days, but for everyone that final day on earth will come (Psa 139:16). So what should be our reaction when the pain of temporary separation comes? It is good if we can rejoice that the one who died was a believer and is now present with Jesus. However, there is another component to the event for those left behind. We feel a terrible loss in our life and we need help in dealing with that loss, albeit temporary. Weeping is an important part of the process of dealing with the death of a loved one, and from Jesus we have a good model that it is good to weep. Jesus again has prepared "footsteps" for us. We read in John 11:1-46 of the story of the physical death and resurrection of Lazarus, a friend of Jesus. The relatives and friends were weeping and Jesus "was deeply moved in spirit, and was troubled" (vs 33) and in vs 35 we read "Jesus wept". To elaborate on this occasion (one of two) where Jesus wept, I extract from a treatise I wrote on that topic:

"What does this teach us about Jesus? He had a tremendously wonderful "human" response and a response which only God could make to the situation of people in great sorrow due to the presence of death. His response is an unashamed weeping and showing of immense sorrow at the pain felt by the loved ones who have lost someone due to death. Jesus was present when Adam and Eve sinned and death entered the world and then here He is with very close friends who have been touched by sin's result. In this case He reverses the effect so that the great sorrow in the loved ones is temporarily also reversed (Lazarus would die again). Perhaps He is also immensely sorrowful that it is not time for such pain to be stopped for all time. I think this last interpretation is true, for He knows that one day there will be no more suffering and weeping but that time is not yet. His great insight into all meaning leads to a great frustration and pain since He can not yet cause such pain to cease forever.

So this episode tells us that Jesus had a deep concern for the feelings of His friends and that He even had authority over death. It shows us the man- and God-characters of Jesus. The applications for today are that Jesus still cares deeply about the feelings of His friends and that He is still in control. It reminds us that He still has authority over death and that now all of His friends are immediately given spiritual life upon physical death and one day we will all be together again. One day even our physical bodies will be resurrected to a perfect body. However it also tells us that "there is a time to weep" until the time comes when death will no longer exist. The story thus also teaches us by example that it is OK to cry. "Real men" can cry. When we are in a sad situation and we are crying, we are to remember this story and know that Jesus cares about us on an individual basis and in a very deep manner. He is still there to comfort us and one day to offer the perfect solution.

Today Jesus comforts Christians through Christians. Each of us has gone through specific types of sad occasions in our walk here. A main reason for our going through these times is so that we can comfort other Christians when they go through such similar events (2 Cor 1:5-6). The only people who can be deeply empathic with hurting people are people who have gone through similar circumstances. So we need to be on the alert for occasions when we can comfort people who are going through events similar to those we have survived with victory. "

Jesus said in John 16:20 "Truly, truly, I say to you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned to joy." This was just before His crucifixion and he was telling them that they would weep over His death. In Luke 7:13 Jesus told the widow whose son had died "Do not weep", but that was because He was going to resurrect the son. Otherwise it would have been proper for the mother to weep. We read in Eccl 3:4 that there is a time to weep, and from Eccl 3:1 we see that it is an appointed time which means that God has ordained that we will have a time to weep. But be reassured, there is also a time to laugh (Eccl 3:4) -- again an appointed time. We also read in Rom 12:15 "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep". Part of being a friend is to weep with friends in their appointed times for weeping, and to rejoice with them in their appointed times to laugh.

So it is Biblical that we should express our grief. Sometimes in comforting friends who have lost loved ones, the best thing to do is just to weep with them. But just as God as appointed a time for us to weep, He has appointed us a time to laugh. Just as Job had his life renewed, so will the person left behind have his life renewed. People left behind must enter into a time of redefining their lives in the absence of the loved ones. That does not mean that we forget the ones who died, but that we adjust to a temporary separation.

One of the most comforting Scriptures for this time in anyone's life is 1Thes 4:13-18. In verse 13 we read "that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope". This does not say that we do not grieve over one who is dead, but that we grieve in a different way than do those who have no hope. The Christian grieves, but it is a grief coming from a heart that still has the joy of Christ. And in verse 14 we read that "God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus". So we grieve, but with the inner joy and peace of Christ knowing that one day God will bring back with Him all who have physically died as Christians. So since God has them all with Him, we will be back with our loved ones when we die. And finally in verse 18 we read "Therefore comfort one another with these words". God Himself has given us the words for comfort!


If you are reading this and you do not have this hope within you, I implore you to ask God for that hope which can only be had in the person of Jesus Christ. To the Christian this word "hope" has a different meaning than it does to the non-Christian. To the Christian this "hope" is a certainty. The Christian "hope" is not the same as the word used in "I hope that I will get a raise this year". To the Christian our "hope" is an absolute certainty. You also can have this certainty of eternal existence with Christ if you will ask. But do not delay asking, for nobody knows which coming second of time will be their last one. After that last second, there is no hope -- that is certain. You must deal with death now. How you spend all of eternity depends upon what you do regarding the person of Jesus Christ in the infinitesimally short time we have here in this life form. Don't waste a second.


Web Author: Dr. Leon L. Combs
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